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Jack Weir (1919 - 2000):
Presbyterian Church minister and official

Jack Weir

Andrew John Weir served as a missionary in China, a parish minister in Letterkenny, Donegal and for two decades he was the Clerk and General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church; he served as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1976-1977. He had distinct ecumenical leanings and sought understanding and reconciliation through dialogue, in both the political and ecclesial spheres.

Weir was born in Mukden, Manchuria, now the capital and largest city of Liaoning Province in Northeast China, where his parents Rev Andrew and Margaret Weir were missionaries. Irish Presbyterian missionaries had already infiltrated into Manchuria, beginning with Rev Hugh Waddell from Glenarm, County Antrim, in 1869. Weir had his primary education in mission schools in China before returning to Belfast where he attended Campbell College, a leading school in east Belfast, and Queen's University where he graduated in Experimental Physics. He studied Theology at New College Edinburgh, that is, the School of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh and at Assembly's College Belfast, the theological college for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (now Union Theological College).

He was ordained into the Presbyterian Church on 25 October, 1944 and went back to China as a missionary (his father had died in China in 1933 and was buried there) to the same north-east region. He started off working in the National Northeastern University, but in the aftermath of the defeat of Japan and the subsequent civil war, the Chinese Communists gained the upper hand over the Nationalists in Manchuria by 1948. At first they largely ignored Western Missionaries, but when they began to regard them with suspicion, Weir retreated to the Church's Theological College at Mukden where he taught until the withdrawal of the last foreign missionaries from China, all of whom had evacuated by 19 August 1950.

Returning to Ireland he became a Minister in Letterkenny (where a Presbyterian church had been destroyed by fire by Nationalists on 31 August) before taking up the position of Deputy Clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1962, then Clerk in 1964, a position he held for two decades. In 1976 he was elected Moderator (this position is always for one year only). His time in the General Assembly was marked principally by two controversial issues: new developments in relations between the "Reformed" Churches (largely speaking, those churches which adhere to Calvinistic doctrines and organisational principles) and the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council launched by Pope John XXIII, as part of his policy of aggiornamento; and not least, the onset of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

To this latter to which Weir gave special attention At a particularly violent period of the Troubles, and especially after the the Birmingham pub bombings in November 1974, which killed 19 people and injured 182, Weir was part of a group of Protestant clergymen who in December clandestinely met a group of Provisional IRA representatives, in Smyth's Village Hotel in Feakle, County Clare. The clergymen presented the IRA with a condemnation of violence, a dissertation on its futility and a plea for peaceful resolution of sectarian conflict by negotiation and other democratic channels. The outcome was mixed. On the one hand, with the churchmen acting as lines of communication between IRA and Government, a ceasefire of sorts was announced for 22 December, but it was rather tremulous, broken in the New Year but reinstated on 11 February. While "only" one soldier was killed between January and June of 1975, sectarian killings increased: in the first nine months of the ceasefire, 196 were killed, 37 more than during the comparable period the previous year.

Weir had privately been repelled by what he saw as the unrealistic 1920s-based analysis of IRA political thinking but nevertheless did not simply give up, feeling that some seeds of a breakthrough may well have been sown; he recognised that a vital breakthrough had been made and that it must be enlarged. In the early 1990s, when violence was running at a high level, there were however secret contacts between the IRA and the Government. In April 1992 Weir, as nearly two decades before, again defied public hostility to engage in further talks and contacts in a bid to bolster the fledgling peace process. These talks had a wider span of participants with Weir was involved in further dialogue, along with another former Presbyterian Moderator, Dr Godfrey Brown, with a variety of paramilitary organisations and political groups, not just Republicans. Things turned out rather better than in the 1970s: in 1994, the principal paramilitary organisations on both sides of the sectarian chasm declared open-ended ceasefires, and the way was clear (with one brief though explosive interruption) to the Belfast Agreement (or Good Friday Agreement) of 1998, which is generally agreed to have worked out a considerable success, to put it at its minimum.

Regarding inter-Church relations, the Second Vatican Council prompted an initial is slight thaw in the chilly relations between the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church. The latter Church made no change to its doctrines, but described Christians not in communion with Rome as "separated brethren" (now, apparently, "ecclesial communities") rather than schismatics or heretics. For their part, the Presbyterians at their 1965 annual General Assembly asked for pardon from Roman Catholics for "any actions" committed against them "which have been unworthy of our calling as followers of Jesus Christ". Following meetings of clergy representing major Christian denominations at a hotel, the Ballymascanlon House, just on the southern side of the border near Dundalk, in 1973, the Irish Inter-Church Meeting was established. Controversial at the time (the meeting had to be almost as clandestine as the talks with the IRA), this ecumenical initiative, while it failed to come to agreement on many theological and ecclesial issues (particularly regarding Episcopal ordination), nevertheless became sufficiently strongly rooted that continuing meetings at head of church level eventually came to occur without much comment - indeed, the leaders of the four largest churches held joint press conferences, and to occur regularly.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II, who travelled widely throughout the world, visited Ireland (though it was decided to be injudicious for him to cross the border into Northern Ireland, he gave a major address near Drogheda, about 20 miles away). Weir led a Presbyterian Church delegation to meet him (not all Presbyterians approved, but Weir's party went anyway). In another move, Weir was concerned that the Presbyterian side of the Northern Ireland situation was not being presented in the USA and in 1981 he organised a delegation of senior Presbyterians which visited the main cities in the USA to present another side of the story.

Weir retired in 1985 and was awarded an honorary degree from Queen's University, Belfast in 1990. But deeper into his retirement he began to suffer from Parkinson's Disease. But in 1996 he defied medical advice to visit Shenyang for one last time: the place where he had been brought up. He summed up his visit: "I had come full circle. I had come home." In an encomium, the incumbent Presbyterian Moderator stated: "'Jack Weir was a man of utter integrity. Apart from his wisdom and sound judgment, his willingness to honour and give of himself to those with whom he may have disagreed meant that there was no one in the Presbyterian Church and in the wider community who did not respect and genuinely admire him. He was not only a good but a godly man. All his actions and opinions flowed from a disciplined life of prayer. Jack Weir was a towering figure in the Irish Church. We are deeply saddened by his death."

Born: 24 March 1919
Died: 18 September 2000
Richard Froggatt